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Getting ready for Sundance

Leading American film fest opens Thursday

Leading American film fest opens Thursday

By Anne Hubbell
Special to CNN

(CNN) -- The independent film community has been preparing for the Salt Lake City Olympics nearly as long as some figure skaters -- or at least since the Utah city began its bid to host the sports extravaganza.

Industry insiders have known for years that the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, held in nearby Park City, would be held a week early, security would be tight, and invitations to exclusive, star-studded parties would be very hard to come by.

What the insiders did not count on was the impact of the September 11th attacks, which has made security even tighter, and the nation's severe economic downturn, which has made many of those parties nonexistent.

"We have reassessed all emergency and evacuation plans, and provided additional training for our venue managers and volunteers," said Sundance spokesperson R.J. Millard. The festival is banning sealed envelopes from filmmaker or press mailboxes at festival HQ.

Logistically, things will be more difficult as well: two large, central parking lots are already taken up by equipment and media crews covering the Olympics.

So there may be a little less glitz, fewer people, and fewer rented SUVs at Sundance 2002. No matter. Like the rest of the country, the United States' most important film festival will go on.

And this year, it might actually be about the movies.

Rapid growth

Since its inception in the mid-'80s, Sundance has grown steadily from an informal gathering of media artists to an industry-driven movie marketplace where multimillion-dollar deals happen each day. The festival was founded by Robert Redford as a program of his then-newly formed not-for-profit Sundance Institute. The Institute usurped the faltering United States Film Festival in 1985 and renamed it the Sundance Film Festival.

When the festival began there were very few outlets for independent films. Now major movie studios, convinced by the success of Sundance favorites from "sex, lies and videotape" to "Memento," have bought or created their own independent distribution arms designed to produce low-budget films.

Ironically, the festival has had to resist becoming a victim of its own success. During the dot-com boom of the late '90s, deep-pocketed new-media companies descended on Park City, spending gobs of money on luxury Condos, over-the-top gala receptions, and -- not least -- people in the film community.

Political and economic circumstances being what they are this year, Sundance may return to serving its core mission of helping filmmakers, rather than just playing host to the country's biggest working ski vacation.

Varied slate

The 2002 program boasts a varied slate of work from filmmakers from all walks of life:

- The festival kicks off with the star-studded film adaptation of Moises Kaufman's critically acclaimed play, "The Laramie Project." Writer/director Kaufman guides a ensemble cast, including Steve Buscemi, Jeremy Davies, Peter Fonda, Janeane Garofalo, and Christina Ricci, in presenting the story of the brutal attack on gay student Matthew Shepard and the impact it had on the Wyoming town.

- Two-time Sundance Grand Jury Award winner Victor Nunez (1993's "Ruby in Paradise") returns with "Coastlines." It tells the story of an ex-con played by Timothy Olyphant returning to his coastal home to face his family and reckon with the decisions he has made in life.

- Todd Solondz, the 1996 Grand Jury winner for "Welcome to the Dollhouse," heads back to Park City with "Story Telling." Building on his trademark themes of identity and isolation, Solondz presents a black comedy with an unusual two-story construction, starring John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, and Selma Blair.

- Polish director Kasia Adamik follows in the footsteps of her mother Agnieszka Holland (1990's "Europa, Europa"), with her first feature, "Bark." Lisa Kudrow, Hank Azaria, and Vincent D'Onofrio star in this absurd comedy about a young woman who abandons all human forms of communication and only barks.

Gangsta rap and Vietnam

Though the Feature Film Competition remains the main focus of audiences, media and distributors, the festival does its best to give equal time to the Documentary and Short Film Competitions. Most of the rare theatrically released documentaries of last 20 years have appeared at Sundance, including "Hoop Dreams," "Crumb" and "American Movie."

Documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield, who caused controversy at Sundance in 1999 when his expose on the death of Kurt Cobain, "Kurt and Courtney," was pulled at the 11th hour, returns to Park City with "L.A. Story." The film, about the murders of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, reveals shady connections between the gangsta rap scene led by Suge Knight and corrupt Los Angeles police officers.

"Daughter from Danang" by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco recounts the heart-wrenching story of Heidi Bub aka Mai Thi Hiep and her Vietnamese mother, separated at the end of the Vietnam War by the United States' Operation Babylift and reunited 22 years later.

Veteran documentarians Barbara Kopple ("Wild Man Blues"), Arthur Dong ("Licensed to Kill") and D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus ("The War Room") will also be showing new work this year.

In addition, the festival will have showings of many short films and videos, which have recently become money-making Web and cable TV products.

The 2002 Sundance line-up offers 113 feature-length films, including 74 world premieres, 4 North American premieres and 29 U.S. premieres, as well as over 60 short films. The festival also presents the Sundance Digital Center, House of Docs, Gen-Y Studio, the Music Cafe, the Sundance Online Film Festival, and panel discussions.


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